“If my work has stirred any interest in our country and its past, I am more than paid”––Charles William Jefferys

Charles William Jefferys (August 25, 1869 – October 8, 1951) determined that Canada needed a visual history and a national mythology and he would create it. He chose to portray Canada’s epic events of discovery, courage, war and nation-building. His images placed an almost mythological importance on the nation’s historical events.

In the early 20th century Canadians struggled to define what it meant to be Canadian and how to express their budding feelings of nationalism. Jefferys’ work reflects this and; his historical illustrations are an expression of this growing nationalism. They are representative of the period, and may not be how we would define ourselves today.

A pen and black ink drawing of four men standing and a vignette of four head portraits of other men wearing hats.

Métis Prisoners, North-West Rebellion, 1885 (MIKAN 2834663)

Some of his illustrations were faithfully copied from existing images such as portraits or photographs, while others were based on meticulous historical research on period costumes. In either case, he strove to accurately portray all aspects of early Canadian life.

Beginnings

Jefferys, was born in Rochester, England, and arrived in Canada around 1880 via the United States. After attending school, he worked as a lithographer, illustrator, artist and teacher. He is best known as a historical illustrator.

He taught painting and drawing in the University of Toronto’s department of architecture from 1912 to 1939. During the First World War, he also painted soldiers at training camps in Petawawa and Niagara, on a commission from the Canadian War Records Office.

A pen and black ink drawing of five different vignettes. The first shows a doorway to the Temple; the second shows the front facade of a square, tiered building with large, paned windows. The third shows a whimsical study, and the fourth shows the interior of the Temple with a Jacob’s ladder for the choir. In the middle is the portrait of a man wearing a black cassock.

The Temple at Sharon, Ontario. (MIKAN 2835225)

A black and white lithograph of officers sitting on a shaded grassy knoll in front of an ivy-covered building listening to an officer standing in front of the crowd.

First World War troops in training – outdoor lecture to officers, Victoria College (MIKAN 2835207)

A lithograph showing ranks of troops marching with their duffel bags on their shoulders.

Troops at Petawawa: Canadian Troops marching off for Siberia (MIKAN 2899652)

Further research

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has approximately 3,000 of his drawings or watercolours. Many have been digitized and are available online. They represent the many stages of his artistic process and his finished works.

To view a selection of the images in the LAC collection, view the Jefferys Flickr album. To browse the entire Jefferys collection, start your search in the Charles William Jefferys fonds and select “Lower level description(s).” Most of his graphical material is located in the Imperial Oil Collection. If you are looking for a specific theme, such as “war,” go to Advanced Search and select “Part of MIKAN number” and then enter “100034” in the box next to it. In the second box, leave the default search – Any Keyword and enter your keyword–in this case, “war.”

Happy searching!

One thought on ““If my work has stirred any interest in our country and its past, I am more than paid”––Charles William Jefferys

  1. I first ran across Jeffreys in a grade school history book — “The Story of Canada”. Many of the illustrations in the book were confabulations — Cartier planting a cross, Champlain looking across a vista. But quite evidently they affected me! It would be interesting to see what / how many of his illustrations were used in school books or used to illustrate other books.
    Purely as an aside: in the early 1920s Jeffreys gave courses on composition to members of the Toronto Camera Club.

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